Mural of the late John T. Williams on 11th Avenue and Pine Street.
  • Mural of the late John T. Williams on 11th Avenue and Pine Street.
Today, testimony wrapped up in the public inquest into the death of John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver who was shot last summer by a Seattle police officer for failing to drop a carving knife—legal under city laws—that he was carrying.

The eight member inquest jury must now answer a series of questions related to the Aug. 30 shooting, which will help determine whether Officer Ian Birk followed police training when he shot Williams. It could also influence whether or not the King County Prosecutor's Office presses criminal charges against Birk.

Rick Williams, the older brother of John T. Williams, was the first to take the stand. His testimony was tense, mostly monosyllabic, and delivered in a calm voice barely above a whisper. When questioned by Melinda Young, an attorney with the King County Prosecutor's office, the elder Williams testified that his brother would've closed his knife if he knew he was being approached by an officer—or anyone else.

Young: How many times have you seen your brother with a knife?
Williams: Most of his life.
Young: How often have you seen him using the knife for carving totems?
Williams: Every day. Most of his life.
Young: What would he do when he talked to people?
Williams: Close it, stand up, and talk to them… every time someone talked to him.
Young: Every time?
Williams: Yes.
Young: Without fail?
Williams: Yes.
Young: Was that something you were trained to do?
Williams: Yes.
Young: By your father?
Williams: Yes.

R. Williams went on to testify that the way Williams closed his knife by pushing the lock button in and pressing the blade against the board until it snapped shut—similar to a movement that several witnesses testified seeing Williams make while walking.

Then attorney Ted Buck, who's representing Birk, questioned the elder Williams about his brother's drinking and reportedly aggressive behavior.

Buck: Do you remember telling a newspaper reporter you haven’t seen your brother in sometime?
Williams: Yes.
Buck: Were you aware he was increasingly psychotic in his behavior?
[The question is objected to and sustained—R. Williams doesn't have to answer.]
Buck: You don’t know what your brother’s behavior was like around police officers or authority figures—threatening, cordial, etc. do you?
Williams: I know what he did.
Buck: You're suggesting that he would’ve put it away and talked cordial to police officers?
Williams: I know he would’ve closed his knife and tried to put it away. That’s carver’s trade.
Buck: Do you know one way or another if he threatened police officers?
Williams: No.

Shortly thereafter, Edwin Burgado—a firefighter and EMT—testified that he saw an open knife next to Williams's body. Burgado drove Engine 25 to the scene of the shooting. Another responding firefighter, Dan Jones, recalled seeing a knife but couldn't remember whether it was open or closed. Tim Ford, the attorney for the Williams family, tried to suggest through his line of questioning that both men's memories of the open knife had been influenced by initial media reports, which showed pictures of Williams knife open (these pictures were provided by SPD to show the length of the blade).

Then Sergeant Robert Vallor took the stand. Vallor is the homicide detective responsible for taking pictures at the scene. He was also the man who discovered the second knife in Williams's pocket. He testified that both knives were closed when he found and photographed them.

Young: What did you see when you arrived on scene?
Vallor: To the south there was a piece of flooring, next to it was a folded knife with an officer standing next to it... Officer Leavitt was posted next to the knife.
Young: Did you take pictures?
Vallor: Yes.
Young: Was the knife [on the ground] open or closed?
Vallor: The knife was closed.
Young: What else did you find?
Vallor: A folding knife, it was closed. It was partially in, falling out of what would be the right front jacket pocket.
Young: Was it already on the ground?
Vallor: No.
Young: Was it visible?
Vallor: Not clearly visible.
Young: Was there a third knife?
Vallor: Not that I saw.

Most civilian witness testimony this morning were small variations of what we've already heard—that Williams wasn't acting aggressively or wielding a knife when Birk shot him. One witness said that she saw Williams hunched over and shuffling his feet, dancelike, before Birk fired. Another witness got teary eyed as she described Williams lying down—not falling—after the shots rang out.

Roughly 30 people packed into the overflow room to watch the testimony on a large video screen. Their mood was somber—gone was the rage voiced by onlookers at the start of the inquest. Pat John, a First Nations tribal member, announced that there would be a vigil held today at 4:30 p.m. at the park next to the courthouse—not just to remember Williams, but to show support for everyone involved in the trial. "It's for the judge and the jurors and the police and everyone who's been in that courtroom," said John. "This is a hard thing to have to go through. The vigil is for everyone who's gone through it."

Past posts on the inquest, chronologically: people praying for murder charges, protests outside the courthouse, the first day of testimony, the second day revealing that witnesses never saw aggression toward the officer, Officer Birk on the stand, followed by inconsistencies in Birk's testimony, witness testimony that Williams was not a threat on day four, SPD testimony that carrying closed knives in public can get you shot, and testimony from the medical examiner. Stay tuned.